News: Irina Kolesnikova - On balancing Odette and motherhood.

Friday 7 August 2015 by Graham Watts

Irina Kolesnikova as the Black Swan. St Petersburg Ballet Theatre.

It was a beautiful spring afternoon when I made my way to the famous Théâtre des Champs-Elysées to meet St Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s prima ballerina, Irina Kolesnikova. This celebrated Parisian theatre on the Avenue Montaigne was assured a place in cultural history within seven weeks of opening, when it staged the infamous production of The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) by Les Ballets Russes, on 29th May 1913. However, the very first ballet to be performed at the theatre, on the night following its official opening, in April 1913, was a dance spectacular curated by the great ballerina, Anna Pavlova. On the afternoon of my visit, the theatre’s 102 year history seemed to be enclosed, like book-ends, by these two exceptional ballerinas from St Petersburg being the first and the latest to grace this historic stage.

Having performed Swan Lake (with The Royal Ballet’s principal, Vadim Muntagirov) on the previous two evenings, Kolesnikova had just finished a full main-stage rehearsal as Nikiya, the tragic heroine of La Bayadère. And, in just over two hours’ time, she was about to dance the whole thing again, in front of a capacity audience (with the Bolshoi Ballet’s Denis Rodkin as her partner).

Kolesnikova’s hectic schedule would be tough enough for any ballerina but add into the mix that she is mother to a baby daughter, Vasilina, not yet nine months’ old at the time of our interview, and one must instinctively marvel at her strength and stamina, both mental and physical.

I find the prima ballerina in her dressing room, still wearing rehearsal clothes, feet raised high onto her dressing table for some relief; the table strewn with the detritus of a ballerina’s life: make-up, ribbons, sewing kit, pointe shoes. I started by asking what her feelings were about returning to dance in London after an absence of five years? “Yes, I’ve been waiting a long time”, she told me, “so I hope that the public will remember me and that they have been waiting, just like I have, for my opportunity to dance again”.

I asked if there is any difference in the way that she performs; now she is a mother? Had it changed the way that she approached roles, especially those that require great expressiveness and emotional qualities, such as Nikiya and Odette? “I have heard many stories that after giving birth, things are often different for a ballerina”, she replies. “Perhaps they are mentally or emotionally different; or maybe a dancer gains something in terms of expressiveness”, she adds. “I think that many ballerinas shoot a lot higher but I’ve also heard many stories about dancers performing less well after becoming mothers”.

It begs the question about how Irina feels about herself, nine months’ into her special dual role. She laughs: “Well, I haven’t yet given many performances since becoming a mum and I’m hoping, of course, that I go upwards”, adding, for reassurance: “…and I’m starting to feel that this is happening. I hope that I’ll be one of those ballerinas that get even better because of motherhood”.

What about the pressures of being a mother? “Well, it is a challenge”, she says, “but I knew that it would be and I have help. Getting up early in the morning after a late night performance is difficult but I have to be there for Vasilina and I wanted this, so I can’t complain”.

I was keen to know why Irina had not gone into one of the established Russian Ballet companies – such as the Mariinsky in St Petersburg or the Bolshoi in Moscow – after her graduation (in 1998) as a top student from the class of Elvira Kokorina at the famous Vaganova Academy; choosing instead to enter a much smaller and relatively new company. “Was this a deliberate strategy”, I asked?

“Not at first”, she replies, “in fact it was simple. The Mariinsky took only a couple of dancers from my graduation year. So, I went to the Jacobson Ballet Company (named after Leonid Jacobson a famous avant-garde choreographer in the USSR, who had died in 1975). However, I spent just six months there because I didn’t feel that the company was offering me what I needed; and so I looked for something else”.

Even though it was then only five years-old, St Petersburg Ballet Theatre provided the right opportunity for Irina. “I like working and when I came to this company, I sensed immediately that here was a place where I was going to get lots of performances in major roles, so I had no hesitation”. She joined as a soloist and within two years, Irina was promoted to principal; by 2001, she had become the company’s prima ballerina, aged just 21.

I ask about her feelings on the importance of aesthetics, in terms of the physical qualities required to dance roles such as Nikiya and Odette, especially since she matches the right image for both roles. How does she feel about changing perceptions that are widening the horizons of what is deemed to be right for these roles?

“It’s a difficult and complicated question”, she replies, adding: “I agree with you. They’re my roles. Swan Lake and La Bayadère – they’re for me! What happens at the moment is that every ballerina wants these roles on their CV”. Her view is refreshingly liberal: “Even though some ballerinas may not suit a traditional understanding of what each role should be, every ballerina brings something to their interpretation and so, in my view, if they are good enough to perform such challenging choreography, then they should be given the chance to do so, irrespective of whether they suit a traditional view about the physical attributes for the role. It’s a legitimate argument about whether you like it or not, but audiences will ultimately decide”.

Although Irina is known for her interpretation of these classic roles, she also danced in Peter Schaufuss’s Divas, performing as Judy Garland, at the Apollo Theatre in London’s West End, some ten years’ ago. I asked if she enjoyed this experience of performing something new and contemporary and whether she now sees herself doing more modern work. “I enjoyed it very much”, she says, adding quickly “…and I would love for that kind of role to happen again”. However, she concedes: “I could have put all my strength into chasing other roles but I put my concentration on something else recently and I became a mother! Now that I have accomplished that goal I can start looking at the next direction for my career”.

She confirmed that Muntagirov and Rodkin would again be her partners for Swan Lake and La Bayadère in the London Coliseum season adding that she has really enjoyed working with both during the Parisian season. “They’re very professional and great, virtuoso dancers. I’m so glad to have them as my partners. I’m pleased that Vadim is getting chances to make guest appearances because it gives him more diverse influences that will help his career”, she added.

Before leaving, I ask Irina if she enjoys touring and her response brings us full circle to the missionary zeal of Anna Pavlova, that first ballerina to perform at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, on the night after its opening, in 1913. This latest prima ballerina to grace the same stage also strives to take ballet to the people. “I love to perform for different audiences. I hope that we can persuade people who have perhaps never seen a ballet to come again; and to love it”. We could be rolling back the years and listening to Pavlova’s mission. But, there must be a relaxing side to it? “Yes, I really love just walking in the streets, getting the feel of every city. I have really missed London over recent years and I’m so looking forward to visiting the London shops”!

St Petersburg Ballet Theatre at the London Coliseum
Swan Lake
Thurs 13 – Friday 21 August, daily at 7.30pm (except Sun 16th & Wed 19 August)
15 & 20 August, 2.30pm, 16 August & 22 August, 1pm

Irina Kolesnikova dances with Denis Rodkin on Thur 13, Fri 14, Sat 15, Mon 17, Tues 18 August, 7.30pm and with Vadim Muntagirov on Thu 20 & Fri 21 August, 7.30pm (NB subject to change)
Full casting details

La Bayadère
Sat 22 August, 7.30pm
Sun 23 August, 3pm
Tickets: £25 – £85

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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